OGB Podcast #17 – The Socratic Scribbler: Malachy Walsh on Writing and Saying What You Mean
Online Great Books seminar leader and former advertising executive Malachy Walsh joins the podcast again to discuss everyone’s least favorite school subject — composition. Many people dread writing, either because of grammar, a tenuous grasp of dialect, or simply because they are not sure what they have to say. Malachy has developed a writing course for OGB to help people write fluently and confidently, and, most importantly, with a purpose.
Malachy’s writing education began in Catholic primary school, but was really informed by his experience in advertising. Early in his career he trained as one of the first “account planners” in North America, and faced the challenge of writing coherently about his clients goals and objectives.
In Malachy’s course, students don’t spend much time on writing per se. Instead they spend time learning to better formulate their thoughts using the Socratic method of asking questions. To Malachy, effective writing involves planting a question in the reader’s mind which begs to be answered. Without the question, writing has no purpose. Indeed, Malachy’s method assigns a job to the piece of writing. There are three basic types of “jobs” for writing:
- Conveying knowledge or information, answering the questions: who, what, why, where, and how?
- Persuasion, or explaining the value of things. Answering the question: what do people currently think, feel, or do, and what do I want them to think, feel, or do?
- Ceremonial or evocative, for creating emotional effect. This writing deals with drama and questions of conflict.
Only once these bedrock questions have been established does Malachy move on to more mechanical aspects of writing such as sentence structure, style, and grammar.
Keep an eye out for the launch of Malachy’s Socratic Scribbling course at Online Great Books as well as a forthcoming book!
discussion of why people want to learn how to write better
The unsung héros of writing eduction
Malachy’s writing role models
Journalism style of writing
Malachy’s Advertising career
The Socratic Scribbler course
The benefits of listicles
How to write explanations
Hierarchy of goods in writing for persuasion
7-Up advertising example
Writing ceremonial rhetoric
Utilizing schemes and tropes in your writing
The power of a thank you note
Discussion of the best speech givers
Importance of life stage in developing your message for your audience
Resources/Articles/People Mentioned In The Podcast
- Aristotle’s Rhetoric
- The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
- Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill
- Tom Wolfe
- Norman Mailer
- Brooks’ and Warren’s Rhetoric
- Robert Penn Warren wrote All the King’s Men
- Walker Percy
- Sister Miriam Joseph
- Wayne Booth
- Johnny Dollar and Gunsmoke
- ”you like it, it likes you.”
- Charlton Heston
- “Letter From Birmingham Jail”
- Joseph Keller in Catch 22
Scott Hambrick: Welcome to another Online Great Books podcast, I have Malachy with us again today. Malachy Walsh he was in the episode that we did earlier about him being an ad man and a Great Books man and he’s also a rhetoric and writing guy (I guess, I don’t know).
Malachy Walsh: Yeah!
Scott Hambrick: For a number of years you’ve been working on an instructional method to help people get some facility with writing that you’ve built around Aristotle’s Rhetoric and some other great works. Tell us all about it. People want to know how to write.
Malachy Walsh: Well, why do you think they want to know how to write? I guess it’s because a lot of people don’t feel very confident when it comes to writing and I also think the way a lot of people were taught to write was to avoid mistakes. I remember we all had to read (the little bible) The Elements of Style by Strunk and White and they were New Yorker writers and journalists and only girls used a passive voice it was not a manly style like Ernest Hemingway.
Scott Hambrick: Is that in there?
Malachy Walsh: No, but it’s implied, I think.
Scott Hambrick: Right.
Malachy Walsh: Strong sinuous prose, you avoided the passive, you never used an adverb or an adjective and you were very careful with your word choice so that you had clean writing and you wanted to make sure your subjects and verbs agree and so forth. You got the feeling that writing was avoiding mistakes. To a good end, for clarity, in other words what they constantly point out is if you don’t have subjects and verbs agree or if you lay on too many words and nobody can follow what you’re saying, and your unclear. It was all a virtuous enterprise but none-the-less, I know in me it created a kind of paranoia where you ruthlessly proofread and transpose all passive voices and what-not. If I could the best way I could explain my approach to writing and teaching writing the way that I learned. Which I think would be clear if I could do that.
Scott Hambrick: Tell us.
Malachy Walsh: I have the good fortune of going to Catholic grammar school, had the nuns. The nuns taught us how to diagram stuff.
Scott Hambrick: You had the nuns like people had the measles?
Malachy Walsh: Right! They are the unsung heroes of education. For all the ill-news about the priests, there’s very little ill-news about the nuns we grew up with. We learned Alter has made a documentary, it was just out on CBS, and I think it’s on HBO now. Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, two of the great journalists of the 1990s, (actually the 60s through the 90s) were credited with inventing new journalism. He was interviewing them and they both credited their ability to write to the nuns. They had gone to Catholic schools in New York and they learned how to diagram sentences and learned how to write those masculine active voice. Subject, verb, object, subject, verb, object: doesn’t make it complicated writing. They also were journalists, neither of them went to college. Both of them said that the decline in writing occurred when the editors and journalists started to go to college. My mother, by the way, was a journalist. She went from high school to working for The Chicago Sun as a writer. You went right out of high school and you knew people and you interviewed people and you wrote: who, what, when, where, how, and why, writing.
Scott Hambrick: Very workman-like and trade-like.
Malachy Walsh: If you think about the people you know who are pretty good writers a lot of them went to journalism school. In other words, the folks who write pretty well seemed to have gone to journalism school where they learned how to write leads and the: who, what, when, where, how, and why, questions and answer them. They became models of good writing. At the same time they also promulgate the, “well you know these guys learn through the ‘school of hard knocks’ so to be a good writer you have to write every day, it’s really hard, and you have to be a tough guy to do it.”
Scott Hambrick: Right.
Malachy Walsh: Hamill was a smart guy, or Tom Wolfe was awesome (he was a Yale guy) but who created the New School of Journalism as well. You had to be a really smart guy so that writers were considered smart, and I grew up where the heroes were Norman Mailer (the big, popular writers who made big arguments and have this prose) and they were role models that we all wanted to be.
Scott Hambrick: Where do you put Terkel on that? He’s a tough guy?
Malachy Walsh: He is, and it was the 1930s, and it was bar room talk. He had a thing on channel eleven here in Chicago called Studs’ Place which tried to recreate Chicago bar talk.
Scott Hambrick: He wrote The Good War, there’s a narrative history about working lives.
Malachy Walsh: I wanted to write a book against it called “Loafing” where I was going to interview people like bridge tenders and right fielders.
Scott Hambrick: “Right fielders” …I was very influenced by Terkel, and I read that stuff when I was in junior high and I thought it was magnificent. His ability to ask those questions and get good answers from people.
Malachy Walsh: And a great training if you’re going to blogs and interviews because he was a genius. I’ll continue my story. I got through grammar school and diagramming sentences, in high school was to learn how to write a research paper and index cards. I thought that was fruity, and those were for the kids whose ties were clipped, (right) they were too neat. I stupidly didn’t follow the index card route and I would have saved myself a lot of time in becoming a writer had I done that. I get to college, I go to Georgetown in D.C., and there (this is the era I’m in college, in the 60s, the way English was taught if you had a classical education like I did) was with Brooks’ and Warren’s Rhetoric. And they thought: writing should be taught the way you learn how to draw. Which is you sit in a gallery and you imitate, you draw a live models or you imitate the great painters and you used to be able to (in the art institute in Chicago) go through and see people sketching trying to recreate the great masters: learning the forms. They’re called the “formless critics”. The name of Brooks’ book was called the Well-Wrought Urn. To give you an idea of what he thought writing was was working very strictly in a form. Robert Penn Warren wrote All the King’s Men and he was a professional, best-selling author who also believed in this. The other culture of great writing in America is “Southerns,” the “Southern Movement,” the Alan Tate’s and whatnot. If you were a Southern male or Southern female you could write, nobody knew how, but if you were southern you were born with a gift of writing.
Scott Hambrick: It’s hard to disagree with. I’ve been reading a lot of Walker Percy, lately.
Malachy Walsh: Absolutely.
Scott Hambrick: He lived down the street from Shelby Foote. It must have been in the well water. They didn’t have city water. It must have been in the well water to speak and write beautifully, it’s amazing.
Malachy Walsh: Part of the culture, like the Irish.
Scott Hambrick: Part of the culture for them, I said they speak beautifully, and they did, and by extension they could write beautifully as well.
Malachy Walsh: Indeed, and I think that will go hand-in-hand with what I’ll be talking about. That ends the formal education and then I had the “role model” method and that helped my writing a lot, that was a good method to learn form. It was a little more positive than “don’t make any mistakes” writing. Then, I went to graduate school at the University of Chicago and that’s where I got exposed to Shakespeare because I was specializing in Shakespeare, and I got interested in how Shakespeare learned how to write. That led me to a wonderful nun. (The nuns bookend my career.) Sister Miriam Joseph, who had gone to Columbia and was a great friend of Mortimer Adler, and the great books and wrote on the Trivium, also wrote on Shakespeare’s use of language and how he learned how to write. He learned how to write by studying classical rhetoric. His use of the tropes and the principles of rhetoric. Of course, the University of Chicago was famous for having a rhetorical orientation to both philosophy and literature via Wayne Booth (The Rhetoric of Fiction) and Richard McKeon and Elder Olson (so-called Neo-Aristotelian group, at the time). That was my next big ‘aha’, there was this art of putting things together and that’s as I say where I learned about schemes and tropes and positive ways, it was a skill you could learn that Shakespeare got to be a better writer the more he practiced. There was no punctuation Shakespeare touched. He learned how to write a sentence by learning sentence patterns like you can take Salem out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of Salem. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. “You like it, it likes you,” said 7 Up. That is a scheme in classical rhetoric. He was sent home and told to write twenty of them and there are about thirty of these patterns and he mastered them all and every sentence he writes is in one of those patterns. It wasn’t that he was told to write a complete sentence or a grammatical sentence if it wasn’t’ in the pattern of a scheme it wasn’t a sentence or an improvisation on a scheme. So, that was a big “aha”! Then, I go into advertising and start out as a writer and at that time there was this new thing going through advertising which is called account planning, which J. Walter Thompson invented in England, (in London) in the 1960s by a guy named of Steven King. One of the clients complained (Thompson, one of the first global ad agencies) and he complained, “you guys don’t have a common method. If I talk to your Paris office they make advertising in one way, London and New York do it another way. What is the “Thompson way?”” Thompson said, “point well taken”. They sent the Steven King (not the horror novelist) but a recent Cambridge graduate around the world to go to 200 or some offices of J. Walter Thompson and develop a best practices which became the “Thompson way”. The “Thompson way” was written as a set of questions you should ask yourself and if you want to develop a communications program for a client. This became known as the art of account planning. I went to London to learn how to do this and I became one of the first account planners in America plus it fit in my education perfectly. When we went to this account planning it was just what I loved to do. Then, we had to train people how to do this and I got assigned to work with a group of how to train people around the world how to use these questions and answers. Then, over and above that it occurred to me that “is there a way that we could get people together and do this in one day?” I and a couple of other people invented a technique called “Day One” where we put a whole bunch of people together in a room and could come up with an advertising strategy or could come up with a strategy at the end of the day: was the idea. Going through a set of very disciplined questions. How does this all relate to writing? What is came back to is clients, like Kraft and big clients, would have their planning year. Let’s say you were the manager of Oscar Meyer hot dogs, you had to do a PowerPoint presentation on how you planned to build the hot dog business next year (and this was a big time in companies when you had to present your next year’s plan). The senior class complained, “…we get a hundred slides of gobbily gook, we can’t figure out what people are saying.” I think this is where people would say the problem with writing is often in business meetings the PowerPoint seemed to lead nowhere and there’s 8,000 pieces of data on the slide that nobody could possibly interpret. Our clients, when we invited them to attend our “Day One,” who said, “well let’s just do this ourselves,” they loved them. They started noticing they said, “…our plans are getting crystal clear now.” They organized their plans against the questions “you guys” put, and each slide is a question and answer and we know what they’re going to do. Surprise, surprise. The irony of the “Day One” is it not only improved the planning, the thinking itself, but it also improved the writing. As I was reflecting on this and my own education and being invited to help people learn how to write (I used to do a writing course at Thompson, and I taught at DePaul on and off many years). I began to see the problem most people have with writing is either one or two things: it’s a dialect issue which is “I don’t know how to write proper English- it’s so grammatical,” people say. It’s a dialect issue which doesn’t lead you into a common language but it’s learnable. English is a second language, like you’re over here from China and your trying to figure out how to put English sentences and spelling together, which is impossible because our spelling is nuts. There are no rules that make any sense but those are fixable. Most people, I think, when they have a problem with writing it’s because they really don’t know what they want to say. You can tell when somebody has something to say they usually write it out pretty well. What they don’t really know what they think, themselves, or asked to write something artificial then they don’t really know what to write and that leads them to write poorly or long sentences or to rely on ‘let’s move the envelope’, or the clichés that we’re all told by the nanniests not to use. Long story short, out of all this (out of the “Thompson way”, especially) I then connected it back and I realized, my goodness, what the “Thompson way” or the “Day One” that I took credit for inventing was basically applying Aristotle’s principles and Cicero’s’ principles from classical rhetoric. In other words, if you think like an advertising man and ask yourself what you’re doing what’ll you come out with? You come out with the basic truths of writing effectively. That’s what led to the development of this course. Therefore, I don’t do a lot of things in the course which you’d expect in a writing course. Number one, we don’t do any writing.
Scott Hambrick: I should clarify that you have created a course (like you said, you have taught at the Walter Thompson many times, you taught at DePaul a little bit) and you’re getting ready to run, for some of our members at Online Great Books, and you’re in the works of compiling this course into a book.
Malachy Walsh: yes.
Scott Hambrick: Hopefully that will be coming out here maybe late this year, (that would be great). Let me put some pressure on you. When’s that coming out?
Malachy Walsh: Late this year.
Scott Hambrick: Late 2019. I think it’s amazing. Well, it’s not amazing, we knew that this would happen, but I love that you’re able to draw a straight line from reading Great Books, liberal arts education, to a practical application. It’s not just that you wrote for advertising purposes, you’re writing to get other people to understand that something is important, and we all have that problem. You’re advertising for yourself so that you can get a raise. You’re trying to write a coherent email to someone so they can understand what you need them to do, or whatever. We all have the advertising problem (the rhetoric problem).
Malachy Walsh: My first version of this, I used to offer courses, some clients would ask me to come in and I would offer a two-day seminar in writing. To make it simple, I called it a jobs approach to writing. Which is what job are you trying to accomplish with this writing. Don’t start with any worries about any rules about writing ask yourself, what is this writing supposed to do.
Scott Hambrick; Right.
Malachy Walsh: Right. Write it down and then figure out what needs to happen for the writing to do that and then go ahead and do that.
Scott Hambrick: I’ve seen the outline for your course, and like you said earlier (before I interrupted you), you don’t do any writing. You’re really teaching people how to ask the questions they need to ask of themselves, so they’ll know what the heck it is they need to write.
Malachy Walsh: That’s why I’m titling it “How To Become A Socratic Scribbler” which is that one of the first things you’ll read, in the Great Books, is often Plato and Socrates is a master of asking questions. If you think about writing, all kinds of writing as posing and answering questions. That makes perfect sense when you think of any kind of expository writing you might hesitate and say, “oh wait a minute, a play doesn’t ask and answer any questions.” Well, yes it does. If the first chapter of a novel or the first scene of a play doesn’t say, “Gee, is he really going to do that?”, “Is Caesar really going to die?”, or “How do they do that?”, you’re not interested in reading further. In fact, the art of writing or capturing somebody’s attention is putting a question in somebody’s mind. Once you recognize that’s the role of the first scene, it makes that first scene a whole lot easier to write. I think that all kinds of writing, therefore, is about questions and answers and this leads me to develop what I call the three kinds of writing that people do or the three basic jobs. One job, or the big one, is conveying knowledge or information. If you think about it this also relates to Mortimer Adler’s basic question “How do you put a battery in a flashlight?”, “How do I get from here to there?”, “What happened yesterday at work?”, you’re asking people for an explanation. “What happened at yesterday’s meeting?”, “What are we going to do next year?” All these questions of: who, what, when, how, why, are related to information that needs answered, and there are particular ways that have been developed for conveying info. This gets into the stuff that Aristotle tried to write. What are the questions that are being asked when you’re conveying info and that is typically: who, what, when, how, where, and why. You’re answering those types of questions and as Aristotle points out you can proceed in a consistent way. you can start with particulars. What can you do with a particular? You can describe it. You can compare and contrast it to another particular and then you start to create groups based upon similarities and differences, categories, which lead you to logical connections, and then you can put them in temporal or spatial sequences. That’s all you really can do. There really are only five or six ways you can explain something. I got very angry “well, why didn’t anybody ever tell me that?” I said, “if I had that checklist in front of me…”, boom, I’d know when I would explain something I could make sure. Should I put this in some sort of spatial order (step one, step three), or should I put it in five categories; my three “aha” moments or something like that? Then call people like “listicles.”
Scott Hambrick: Right.
Malachy Walsh: We all like listicles because it’s the format we expect when we get things explained to us, I think. Sometimes things require more than an explanation, which is well, “how do you know that? I need some proof.” That’s where, again, you get into the Organon and science which is, “well, what do we take as evidence?”. That’s where you get into, “Do I use witnesses?”, “Do I use case histories?”, “Do I use examples?”. If somebody really needs…If I ask directions I don’t usually ask the guy to prove to me that he’s got to give me the right directions. But other things…if you want me to send somebody to jail I kind of want some evidence before I vote on that.
Scott Hambrick: Again, I have to point out, you’re so sneaky. You’re talking Aristotle’s rhetoric and how you’ve applied that but then you say, “I” answering these big questions: who, what, when, where, why, and all that and then you said, “but then we have to find out…we have to have some sort of standard of proof.” Then you dropped Aristotle again and the Organon because he describes to us how we know things in that book, and you used the knowledge he taught us about how we know things to become a better writer.
Malachy Walsh: Right. That’s how to learn how to write explanations. In the rhetoric, you do not learn how to write an explanation. The rhetoric’s concern with persuasion, which I’ll talk about in a minute (in a second category), but if you think about it, all this kind of writing is about knowledge, you’re conveying knowledge. That’s the kind of writing which the rhetoric particularly addresses, and the ethics (by-the-way) is when I’m not just explaining things, but I’m asked to explain the value of things “Who would you recommend to be a host?” That implies we have some ideal host in mind or some criteria that would make a good discussion lead, and what would those criteria be? We have a conversation about values and goodness. Basic questions about what’s the right or good thing to do. That’s where you get into persuasion “…how do I end up doing something good or what I want.” It’s also about our desires because again, as we know, from Aristotle and the ethics and from Plato choices and actions, the world of practical life, going beyond knowledge into practical decisions about life; what is good. We’re beyond knowledge, here, just knowledge. It’s a build-out, it assumes you know how to do that stuff. But the next two things you need to know how to do if you’re going to persuade people is you’ve got to be an expert in people’s desires and there’s a hierarchy of them from the physical desires to intellectual desires to the desires of the soul. Again, in advertising planning, this is what we spent all our time in (you know, is this a chocolate bar or is it sex?).
Scott Hambrick: If we have to explain that we’re in trouble.
Malachy Walsh: Right. But truthfully, it’s sex for women, (as a rule) physiologically.
Scott Hambrick: It is a sensual experience to eat a good chocolate bar.
Malachy Walsh: Yes. A good chocolate bar…that’s why you find those ridiculously humorous ads around xmas about women melting more than just the chocolate.
Scott Hambrick: Let me ask you about this…this is something that bugs me, and I think that only you can satisfy me with this…I love to listen to old-time radio shows. I listen to Johnny Dollar and Gunsmoke and these old radio shows. You can get them on podcasts now and they’ve got the original advertising. In the 50s and before, advertising was very, very concrete “buy our product because it’s economical, it’s effective, it’ll do the job you want it to do, benefit, benefit, benefit, the end.” Now the advertising is more like what you’re talking about in the chocolate bar, or drink this beer you’ll be more attractive, wear these shoes you’ll be more, you know. It’s more about the person than it is the product. It’s about image. You rarely see advertising now where they talk about the benefits of the product. Me being the rational person that I am I want to hear about the benefits.
Malachy Walsh: That’s fair enough and if you’re buying a vacuum cleaner, I think you want to hear about the specific benefits and functionale. But where the hierarchy of benefits usually goes is it starts out with the physical attributes, or service attributes of a person or a thing or an organization. Then, what are the sensory experience like? And from the sensory to the functional “Does this help me do something quicker, faster, or economical?”, “Does it help save me money or make me rich?” Down to the social or political “Does this give me more power at work?” To romance and then up through spiritual manifestation. That’s Aristotle’s hierarchy of good or as stolen by Abraham Malow’s, Maslow’s Hierarchy...some people would generally agree on what they are.
Scott Hambrick: You gave an example of seven up, you said, “7 Up likes you…you like 7 Up and 7 Up likes you”, or what was it.
Malachy Walsh: Right…”you like it, it likes you.”
Scott Hambrick: There you go. That’s the spiritual thing. Isn’t it?
Malachy Walsh: Yes. Well, I think that was the original 7 Up. 7 Up has had two great campaigns “you like it, it likes you” and the “uncola.” Actually, Thompson did the “uncola” a little before I got there. My mentor did the “uncola” campaign, he’s a guy who taught me his name is John Furr. “You like it, it likes you,” people who like lemon-lime drinks as opposed to cola… (cola became the big American drink “I’d like to buy the world a Coke.” 7 Up was always a little more eccentric drink, right, people who ordered 7 Up were always a little different. It doesn’t say that everybody likes it. Coca-Cola’s telling you, “we’re everybody’s drinking it.” 7 Up says, “No, you’re particular, you like it, we like you back. We have a personal relationship.” As dumb as that line may seem, think of the big idea behind that.
Scott Hambrick: It’s beautiful rhetoric really, it’s astounding.
Malachy Walsh: The part of rhetoric that I’m talking about here, in classical rhetoric, you learn like it was Cicero without light. Well how do you begin to write something? You start with the first part of the process is invention which, is you decide what you’re going to say to achieve your objct with your audience. The next part is, once you’ve decided all those, you arrange those things in the order that will work best for your reader or audience. Then, you choose style, that is words and sentences, that fit what you’re saying and will help make it seem memorable. And finally, you talk about delivery. The part of rhetoric is never taught is invention. That’s basically what they want. How did those guys come up with the idea, you know, 7 Up is a peculiar kind of drink. If you think about the “uncola” campaign was basically a rewrite or an updating of the “you like it, it likes you” campaign. Basically saying, “Hey, this is for people who don’t want to go with the flow.” Now higher-order benefits is always a trick, one of the other classic case studies is…Do you remember? You may not.) There was an era in which panty-hose were very popular and a popular brand was called Legs. Legs was trying to figure out “should we sell the functional benefits?” That is fit or smoothness or whatever. They worked their way up the ladder, and they said, “or do we say, ‘you know what ladies, wear these hose and you’ll get married’, or ‘you’ll get laid’”. Whatever your preference but we’ll move you all the way up that ladder of romance as far as you want to go. Then the question got to be, “Where should we message? Should we message way up there?” To your point, Scott, all kinds of things are involved in getting married, nobody’s really going to believe that. At the same time, the primary reason people wear these hose, is they’ll go buy hose for certain functionality but that’s not “Why are they wearing the hose in the first place?” They came down to “men will notice your legs” if you wear these hose. That’s where they came up with “you’ll get noticed if you wear these…” So, what they did is you take the benefit as high as where it makes the critical difference in people’s choices.
Scott Hambrick: You could have made the argument that “wear these”, they came in an egg, it was just the silliest thing ever.
Malachy Walsh: What’s more feminine than an egg?
Scott Hambrick: Right. Was that part of the discussion, the egg packaging effect?
Malachy Walsh: I’m sure!
Scott Hambrick: That’s amazing.
Malachy Walsh: I wasn’t there but I’m sure.
Scott Hambrick: We get to see behind the curtain, here, it’s so fascinating. This, “hey, you’ll get married” …that’s a little absurd so they backed it off (a bit) to “you’ll get noticed.”
Malachy Walsh: To where it’s credible because you want to be credible. This again and remember that this is my second type of writing, which is If you’re in the business of persuading or recommending something (we used to call them “passion points” and “paying points”, or “I can scare you to death.” “Smoke cigarettes and you’ll die.” That’s fair rhetoric as well because it’s true. That’s the second kind and we discuss what are the tools for that. You do have to understand the hierarchy of benefits and what makes them credible and that’s what we talked about then. You’ve got to persuade…you have to know what your reader or audience thinks. What questions do they need to answer? The way I would write a creative brief was “What do people currently think, feel, and do? What do I want them to think, feel, and do? And what will get them from point A to point B?” What questions do I need to answer to make them believe that 7 Up will get them from A to B?
Scott Hambrick: So, conspiracies really do exist. You conspire day in and day out to alter people’s behavior so they would buy panty-hose in the little egg.
Malachy Walsh: Free market of ideas.
Scott Hambrick: This seems obvious, but I need to say it again here before we go on to writing style number three, writing purpose number three. This isn’t about advert to sell products this is about getting a job, this is about writing a paper for your teacher, this about making a new pitch to your boss to take on a new area of responsibility, this is about…
Malachy Walsh: …asking your girlfriend to marry you.
Scott Hambrick: Yeah, all those things.
Malachy Walsh: It is big time. Which gets us into our third thing. What have we got so far: We’ve got knowledge and we’ve got action and making. So, there’s writing and thinking involved with conveying knowledge, and there’s writing and thinking in conveying advice about action. Aristotle refers to this as well, he calls it “ceremonial rhetoric”, and if he also calls it “poetry” in the poetics. What he’s talking about here is that in the other kinds of writing it’s either very kind of theoretical,( right, knowledge) or it’s practical (like advice) but there’s this whole other kind of writing which is where we’re talking “there’s the coach building up the team at half time,” “there’s the toast I gave my daughter’s at her wedding,” “there’s the funeral oration I gave at the death of my best-friend,” (which I actually had to write one of those at one time), and “there’s the poem I want to write my girlfriend,” “the thank you note I want to write to somebody for dinner.” These kinds of things, it’s beyond persuasion, it’s we want to really connect with them in a personal way. It’s almost like an act of friendship or love or hate because I may also want to curse you I’m so angry. We find lots of speeches in the Iliad, by the way, of both kinds which is ‘I want to kill you’ or ‘I want to love you. These are basic human relationships, is there’s some continuum of love and hate. This is love/hate talk and it could be friendship, it could be “I want you to send this guy to the electric chair” at the end of the day, a closing summation that a lawyer gives. So, what kind of questions are you addressing if we have knowledge. Here we’re addressing questions of drama, conflict. People with conflicting agendas and how are those agendas reconciled. So, they’re either alliances but if you think about it where Aristotle deals with these it’s the poetics. We tell stories to move people. The people who move people the best are the storytellers, or the poem makers or the song writers. They’re the ones that get people to cry. When you tell people a song you get so engaged so we’re tapping into everything we tapped into in persuasion, we’re tapping into facts and whatnot as well, but we’re now building it in and we’re now telling a story, and it can be an internal conflict, it can be a funny story, “ten reasons I’m glad to unload my daughter on you” father’s speech (“now you’ll have to deal with her tantrums”). So, you could do all kinds of comedy, tragedy, satire, but writing at this stage is you’re basically creating internal and external conflicts which you reconcile in some way for an emotional effect. Think of a great coach inspiring the team, he’ll get very personal; he’ll call on each player and he’ll either praise him or blame him for his behavior and this is where you get into the myths (using the myths). “Am I telling a redemption story?” “Am I telling a revenge story?” “Am I telling a ‘get even’ story?” So, here’s where genres or kinds of story or a lyric poem or a song is about how this visit to this lake made me remember all the romances of my life or something. This is where you get into where the real writer’s live and some of the great storytellers. So, how do you write these things? Well, then you have to know how to write a story, basically. Comic or tragic, and that’s basically positing people internally or externally with conflicting agendas and have them work out.
Scott Hambrick: This is probably where you have to have the most introspection, I think, you have to be aware of what these stories do to you emotionally in order to be able to write them most effectively.
Malachy Walsh: And think a writer has to make, Adler says, In How To Read A Book, you have to say,”What kind of book is this?” “Is it an adventure, is it a romance, is it an epic?” If you think about the writer has to make the same kind of decision like “but what kind of story is this?” And then there are, back to the Brooks and Warren thing, they’re great role models. There are no new stories you have to decide “does your experience fit a classic,” it’s finding the right model to use kind of conflict and then you can kind of innovate on that- improvise.
Scott Hambrick: People toss off the line, “Oh, that old trope?” Yep they all are. But, can you make it personal? Can you make fit this purpose? Can you use that trope to a good end? Is really the only question.
Malachy Walsh: So, what we’ll do is discuss each of these three kinds and this all comes under invention which is a big part. How do you decide what you want to say? Notice that this gets really interesting, you don’t have to do it alone (it’s great to co-author), and in fact I could show things if you look at the way Hollywood writers write or the Netflix writers today, there is a big wall with a million index cards working out the plot, step by miserable step, with the themes that they want. All of Aristotle’s sections of the poetics written up, I have photos on slides, which I hope( if I could figure out how) to show on the zoom thing (which I think we can). People can actually see how the professional writers today and kind of always did work, which is they have little pieces. Remember the big problem I think a lot of us have with outlining, my response to outlining is “Well, how do I know what I’m going to say until I say it?” But if you work this way with questions and answers (you write questions and answers on slips of ppr) then you go through Cicero’s second thought, you arrange them in the order for your reader. So, this is where I talk about the literal, physical tools you use if you want to write well, is that you should write on little slips of paper. Some people still use the big sheets (if you want to) it’s just harder to shuffle. A great director James Patterson uses those giant legal pads, so I can’t criticize that method (he sells a zillion books every year). And we’ll discuss how to use those and how to put things together. And the last part of the course deals with how to put sentences together and I introduce schemes and tropes. I’ll tell you a story. When I was at J. Walter Thompson, we were putting together “Day One”, the Kraft said, “Well do you have any texts for like, writing sentences?” And I said, “Well, Yeah! Do you know about schemes and tropes?” And they didn’t because none of them…they did them naturally because they wrote slogans and headlines, right.
Scott Hambrick: Right.
Malachy Walsh: Well you would have thought I brought down the ten commandments, I felt like Charlton Heston. I just sent an email with a list of the schemes and tropes and all I’ve got to do is take an idea and experiment with each of these things and one of them will stick. That’s really all you have to do; is take your idea, experiment through a few of the schemes or tropes (tropes are metaphors or comparisons) again we usually learned in school what a simile, a metaphor, and an analogy. Shakespeare learned some thirty or forty (autonomy, all hands on deck) there are all kinds of different kinds of comparisons you can make, and if you start to master those you can get very good in helping you write “zinger” sentences. So, it leads you to write a sentence, you have to write a “thank you” note.
Scott Hambrick: Okay.
Malachy Walsh: “Thank you very much for the wonderful dinner.”
Scott Hambrick: Okay?
Malachy Walsh: But if it opens with something like just a short note with a big “thank you”, that balance…
Scott Hambrick: Right. That contrast of the short and the big opening line makes it seem better.
Malachy Walsh: And then you say, you know, “the deliciousness of the stew was only surpassed by the scrumptiousness of the gossip about ‘so-and-so’”. Well, that “thank you note” really connects with people. If you spend time on “thank you” notes your career is settled for life because nobody writes them anymore or knows how to write them. I’m going to give you an example which I won’t give here but I’ll give you an example of Marylin Monroe wrote one of the greatest “thank you” notes ever to a hotel guy which I use as an example. She was actually a very good writer: Marylin. So, we discuss schemes and tropes and there’s a book about them which I ask people to get only because there’s a resource for you forever that you can start to make sure that you write. I talk about writing headlines not titles. Headlines guide people in stories. Titles will guide the topic but a headline says something about, you know…I could write three “aha” moments or I could “the three ‘aha’ moments” that turned me into a conservative. One’s an idea, the other one’s a title. People like the idea, that’s what’s appealing. So that’s basically the scope of the course.
Scott Hambrick: And if you’re an Online Great Books member you get to go and benefit from all of your experience. Your organizational skills are astounding! You’re able to see all these sort of abstract ideas and make them concrete and organize them and draw up a path through them all so that it’s a teachable method. It’s pretty fantastic, it’s a delight to watch. It really is.
Malachy Walsh: Thank you but I think I learned it most in the advertising business developing that “Day One” because, you know, the old line is “it’s one thing to do something…” a lot of people who write can’t teach you how to write. In a way they’ve kind of developed these habits by instinct. That’s why a lot of reporters are good writers because they wrote on deadline. They had to write something and they knew the questions they had to answer and they just went ahead and did it. They put their own personalities in it. And that’s also what I hope comes out of this, basically I give you a method: you can write anything. You come up with a little checklist, and say okay if you’re writing about an evaluation issue or a promise issue (here are the kinds of promises you could use. What ones…) if you can’t think of one you go, “I know what this one is.” Suddenly they become stimulation for invention for you to decide what you think. So, you end up… I don’t want people to think “oh, this classical rhetoric is where you just copy something smby did before.” Not at all, it’s a checklist of stuff to think about.
Scott Hambrick: Benjamin Franklin, is his autobiography, talks about how he would take news stories (when he was a youngster, like about fourteen year old, and he would take news stories) from the newspaper and he would rewrite them. He would compare “did I miss any points that I could convey it better?” That’s the way that he learned all those forms and tropes and he ended up being “poor Richard,” just write these beautiful little aphorisms that we know so many of by heart: “a penny saved is a penny earned,” “a stitch in time saves nine,” all those things came from that.
Malachy Walsh: Which we call info memes today. Which means taking your main, little bit of logic and turning it into a shorthand memorable headline and that’s what all those so-called aphorisms are. Ask how Oscar Wilde or George Bernard Shaw… You know how Malcolm X learned how to write? When he went to prison he went to the prison library and he copied out of a book called The Great Speeches.
Scott Hambrick: And he was a great speech giver.
Malachy Walsh: Other advantages Afircan Americans have as writers and why Martin Luther King was such a great writer is Baptist preachers were still taught to be a classical rhetoric. That’s why Jesse Jackson and King… that Jackson almost takes the schemes and tropes to assault parody there’s so much rhyming and balance it’s almost, you want to make fun of it. None-the-less he has a gift for it. He’ll take the idea and make it rhyme and damn, if you don’t remember it.
Scott Hambrick: Right.
Malachy Walsh: But King could do this on a grand scope, the “I have a dream” speech uses a metaphor “I went to the mountain top.” The grandest rhetoric ever and that’s African Am Baptistministry has taught great writing. Better probably than any other school.
Scott Hambrick: Yes, “Letter From Birmingham Jail” sticks and fantastic writing. Thank you for outlining this for everyone and I can’t wait to this book that’s coming from this.
Malachy Walsh: The other thing I’m hoping for, I hope that the book will be (or the way I’m imagining it) will be a report on this course. That is I’m going to use our discussion…I designed this course as a discussion so we’re all going to talk about and bring our own experiences, you know “how did you learn how to write,?” and “Who was your great mentor,?” or “What was your big breakthrough?” I think as we share those experiences, this is a framework from which everybody in the room can present their positive gifts for writing. For thinking kind of like “what is writing?” It’s kind of sharing thinking isn’t it?
Scott Hambrick: Yeah, of course. The writing is the method whereby we make another know the contents of our mind.
Malachy Walsh: I think so.
Scott Hambrick: I think so too. That’s what it is when it’s best. He’s talking about who are the influences? I write a lot of stuff to our members of Online Great Books and Jared Markle who does all of our email automations. Your emails, they read like you sound, and they’re funny, and when you said, “who are the influences?” It made me think, “Well, who are mine?” and instantly I’m like Joseph Keller in Catch 22. Tight absurd sentences and it was a big influence on me which is interesting, and Terkel, actually, I love the way the guy writes. This sort of real tight American, funny writing. Twain.
Malachy Walsh: So it’s your favorite books?
Scott Hambrick: Yeah, probably. Catch 22 was my favorite book for years and years and years and it is no longer because I’m not sure what that guy’s driving at there. I don’t know that it is a virtuous book. But I loved it for a time, for sure.
Malachy Walsh: I think as Aristotle says, in the rhetoric, “You’re life stage strongly affects your response to what you’re hearing.”
Scott Hambrick: Yeah.
Malachy Walsh: He says, if you’re trying to appeal to a group of young men, young men have very different interests than old men.
Scott Hambrick: Yeah, I loved, at that time when I was an early high school kid, I loved the anti-authoritarianism and the absurdity of Catch 22, I loved 1984, Animal Farm, (all of those sort of dystopian) Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, I loved all that sort of stuff at that time and I don’t really read that so much anymore.
Malachy Walsh: So, what do you read now? Well, the Great Books keep you busy.
Scott Hambrick: They do. They do. I love these books, dealing with these big problems that bother me “what is justice?” “How do we behave properly?” “How do we best interact with the people around us?” Those problems. If we were to understand the universe, how would we know we understood it? Those kinds of things are the most interesting to me now and so those are the things I’m drawn to reading about more and more. I’m also interested in pedagogy. How are people taught and how do they learn? I’ve got kids and there’s this project I’m in and the barbell coaching. I’m very interested in teaching people stuff. I spent a lot of time on that.
Malachy Walsh: So, those would be good examples. When you’re teaching the barbell stuff (instruction, especially if you’re lifting heavy weights) proper form has to be critical. So that’s not like a discussion topic is it?
Scott Hambrick: No.
Malachy Walsh: You kind of have to tell people how to do something and point out things that they should watch for it’s kind of like the “avoid mistakes” because you could hurt yourself side of it. I’m wondering how you handle that.
Scott Hambrick: It’s a challenge.
Malachy Walsh: The logic… Is that like teaching writing in some ways? Because it is a skill.
Scott Hambrick: It is. If you’re coaching someone who’s squatting a very very heavy weight, they have something very heavy on their back, (and, what’s heavy for one person may not be heavy for another it doesn’t matter) if they’re near their limits.
Malachy Walsh: For me my but the…
Scott Hambrick: That might be your limit and when you’re near your limits you’re cognitively impaired. So, we have to be able to give you cues that are very short, that are very easy for you to digest, that get you to move properly. When you’re squatting and you’re on your toes and you need to reach back with your bottom and your brain’s a little fuzzy because it’s heavy, it’s very difficult (it can be very difficult to describe what you want them to do) so you might yell at the guy “heels,” “reach back,” you have to give these very very short cues that can get the message…
Malachy Walsh: It’s almost military like.
Scott Hambrick: Yes, often times when the squat session is over, you have to say “hey, this is what was happening…”. When I yell “heels” you should feel “this”. You kind of have to give them a decoder ring for the cues so when they hear that cue next time, and it’s short and quick, they know what to do. There’s almost like a Pavlovian thing “when I do this, you do that.” A behavioral thing that has to happen.
Malachy Walsh: Stimulus response.
Scott Hambrick: Yes.
Malachy Walsh: I have a friend who has a business which is called “The Brief Lab” and he teaches people how to be brief, and his biggest clients are the special forces. If they don’t say what they mean, in three words, people get killed.
Scott Hambrick: Right.
Malachy Walsh: And the problem with the military,of course, tends towards a liking for jargon as opposed to…
Scott Hambrick: That jargon leads to snafus.
Malachy Walsh: “Right, left, hup 2, 3…”
Scott Hambrick: Well, we need to have him on here to talk about that that’s fascinating.
Malachy Walsh: Oh, you should, that would be great, actually.
Scott Hambrick: Yeah, hook us up, we’ll do that.
Malachy Walsh: I’ll write him and let him know. He would love that.
Scott Hambrick: Well, that’s been about an hour and I could talk to you endlessly. It’s just fascinating to me and I love your delivery and thanks so much for doing all that.
Malachy Walsh: Thank you for giving me the “old man’s opportunity” to spout it off. When advice is all you have left to give.
Scott Hambrick: You have good advice and I’m glad to take it. So, watch for Malchy’s book, we’ll announce when that thing comes out and if you join Online Great Books you get to benefit from this guy. He leads seminars with us or fur us and he has lead many discussions on his note taking methods which those discussions are fantastic. I’ve taken to heart, in fact, Malachy here’s my index card filing box right there. I have y cards next to my open copy of Plato and then you’ll also get to sit in this reading course and discussion group (The Socratic Scribblings group) that he’s getting ready to kick off. So exciting! Thank you, man.
Malachy Walsh: It is, I can’t wait. Please come and join me and we’ll do as many as people show up for (I hope).
Scott Hambrick: there’s an Online Great Books podcast, I hope you guys enjoyed, email us if you like with anymore comments or questions or topic suggestions, you can email us at email@example.com and if you want to be part of this enrollment is probably closed right now, (we’re only open seven days every eight weeks or so) you can go to the website onlinegreatbooks.com and go to the top right hand corner and click join now and join the V.I.P waiting list that way you’ll get first shot at joining us when we do open. Thanks for listening!